DALLAS -- At 3-2, Notre Dame enters Saturday's Shamrock Series game against Arizona State in a precarious position. It'd take a miraculous run to re-enter the BCS conversation, but beyond that Notre Dame is staring down a .500 record at the halfway mark of the 2013 season.
That's not an envious place to be, not for a team with championship aspirations a month ago.
And Arizona State presents a difficult hurdle to clear.
Getting balance is key for Notre Dame's offense -- if any one of the Irish running backs can be effective on the ground at Cowboys Stadium, the hope is it'll open up a passing game that's severely lagged the last two weeks.
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Arizona State's been weak against the run (192 yards/game average), so perhaps there's some good news there.
The bad news is the Sun Devils' offense may present the greatest challenge for a defense that hasn't made enough plays through five games.
"I think our defense is solid," coach Brian Kelly said. "I don't think they're spectacular, but I think it's a solid defense that we can win with."
That statement will be put to the test on Saturday, as Arizona State is coming off a 62-point drubbing of USC's defense last week.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly is third nationally in passing yards per game, and is a running threat as well. Running back Marion Grice is lethal near the end zone, accounting for 12 touchdowns so far. And wide receiver Jaelen Strong is one of the best pass-catchers in the country, averaging 108 yards per game.
"Containing the quarterback, running the football, and obviously not giving up the big chunk plays," Kelly said of his keys for Saturday. "We gave up a ball that got over our head in cover 3 and then the 56 yard slant. Eliminating the big plays defensively is absolutely crucial to our success."
Those two plays against Oklahoma -- both Blake Bell touchdown throws -- crippled Notre Dame's comeback efforts. Three weeks before the loss to Oklahoma, Notre Dame's defense failed over and over to stop Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner from making plays, again rendering comeback efforts feeble in a 41-30 loss.
"It's not far-fetched that we could've won either of those games," nose guard Louis Nix said. "Oklahoma was a good team, but they were beatable if we would've done a couple things right. And even Michigan as well, those were winnable games we just made a lot of mistakes that we usually don't do, and it's something we go back in the film room and watch and hit ourselves in the head about."
For Notre Dame, a win over Arizona State would be about as big a statement as they'll be able to make until Nov. 30 at Stanford. Arizona State, ranked No. 22, is likely the last ranked opponent the Irish will see for nearly two months.
A loss would send Notre Dame spiraling into the realm of legitimate mediocrity. A win won't fix the wrongs of Michigan and Oklahoma, but it'd give the Irish at least a little momentum heading into a bye week, and then a favorable next five games.
But for a team that went 12-0 last year, they aren't playing like it. With another berth in the BCS Championship unreachable, and BCS bowl hopes hanging on by a thread, at some point it comes down to playing for pride.
Beating a ranked Arizona State team would go a long way in that regard.
"They're not walking around campus flashing their 12 0 rings. They don't have a 12 0 ring. They're not wearing a conference championship ring," Kelly said. "They have an immense amount of pride in what they accomplished by playing so well and winning games that what drives them is winning, and they want to win. They want to win football games, and they want to play good football week in and week out."